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What Helps Cancer Patients

LIDIA SCHAPIRA: I’m Dr. Lidia Shapira, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, where I’m also the director of the cancer survivorship program. At the 2023 annual ASCO meeting, researchers talked about a study they did looking at hope in patients who were participating in clinical trials, what we call early phase clinical trials, meaning that they were taking part in studies that looked at new drugs or new interventions.

And, interestingly enough, they measured hope. There actually are some very good, scientific ways of looking at this. And they found that people who had more hope, who were more hopeful, also had a better quality of life and reported fewer symptoms.

This is very exciting research because it begins to help us to understand how important it is to encourage people to be hopeful or to explore their sources of hope. I’ve often thought of hope as a vital sign. And this early research gives me confidence that we can do more to understand what it is that people feel hopeful about and what we can do as their doctors and clinicians to help them feel hopeful.

LIDIA SCHAPIRA: At the annual ASCO meeting in 2023, I was very encouraged to see work of a very good Canadian team, who did a very thoughtful review of the published literature on caregivers, especially caregivers living with people who have advanced cancer– so people who are probably quite sick.

And this is a very important area of study. Because we know that caregivers also are impacted by this, and their own quality of life often diminishes because of some of the burdens associated with caregiving.

And again, very optimistically here, the researchers found in all of these studies that helping caregivers actually leads to good results. They looked at many different interventions. So I can’t say that there is one particular type of intervention that helps more than others. But I was very encouraged to see, for instance, that counseling helps, that other interventions that are available to caregivers actually help them improve their quality of life, their emotional and psychological well-being.

So this is very important for all of us. As a cancer clinician, I’ve often wondered how I should approach caregivers, and whether it’s enough to just ask them how they’re doing, or whether our team should reach out and really offer more concrete opportunities for counseling or other forms of help. I really hope that this research will stimulate many more caregivers, perhaps, to ask for help if they need it, and also to stimulate my colleagues to think about how to offer and implement more interventions to assist caregivers living with patients who have advanced cancer.

LIDIA SCHAPIRA: At the annual ASCO meeting 2023, I was very encouraged to see some very good, detailed, and very specific work about how we can help cancer survivors. This is the field that I’m in. So I’m always looking for innovation.

And in this study, the researchers looked at how likely it was for cancer survivors to receive screening for breast and cervical cancer. And what they found using a very large database is that patients who had been given some form of instruction through a care plan or through time for somebody to really tell them what the next steps would be and what tests were needed had a greater likelihood of receiving that care. So I take this and generalize this a little bit and think that what cancer survivors often don’t get or need is that very specific advice about what tests they need, when to come back and see a doctor if they need to see their cancer specialists or their primary care doctor or another specialist. And that is what we need to do more of.

So for the cancer survivors, my advice is don’t leave the appointment without knowing exactly what you need to do next, what the next step is, or what the next appointment should be. And for my colleagues who are clinicians, I would say we should all do better in making it very clear to patients at the end of the visit what we recommend so that they can get the best care and the best practices to keep them healthy after cancer.

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